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In support of the Cham

Content image - Phnom Penh Post

The Cham must learn about their history by themselves

Photo by: BRENDAN BRADY

Muslims gather at Udong mountain last month.

After reading David Lempert's "A Homeland for the Chams" on October 10 and the subsequent commentary response "Identity Beyond Origin: the Cham" by Bjorn Blengsli and his colleagues on October 17, as a Vietnamese, I must express my concern over the indifferent comments regarding the deliberation of the Chams in "choosing" their history made by Blengsli et al, if there is such a deliberation, and my concern over a lack of promotion of Cham culture and history for the Cham and the locals in its full sense in the region.

In my opinion, peoples must know their full history in order to move forward and develop.

And before "choosing" a history, the Cham peoples need to SEE, STUDY and KNOW THEIR history in full, as must the Khmer, the Viets, and other peoples of the region in Cambodia and other countries.

As I understand from Blengsli et al's response, people "choose" what to remember or not to remember in their past under the light of the present and within interactions with other cultures. It is easy for those like Blengsli, who has the resources to come to Cambodia and to go to Vietnam to see and study Cham history and to read it in full in European languages (note that most of it is not even yet translated into Cham or Khmer or Vietnamese). It is also easy for those like Blengsli, Carter and Perez-Pereiro to pretend that a minority group like the Cham, who has long been driven out of its own lands and remains vulnerable today, have made a free and full choice about their history already. 

The reality is that in Southeast Asia, in order for US SOUTHEAST ASIAN PEOPLES to be able to find out about OUR history, we must be empowered and feel unthreatened.  Right now, we can only find our history in a very selective manner, through what our governments and our leaders and foreigners who pay for education and translations want to tell us about OUR history.  Given that the majority peoples of the region - the Khmer in Cambodia, the Vietnamese in Vietnam, etc do not yet have the power or resources to find our own history - how can the Cham possibly have the power unless people like Professor Lempert and others speak out to help?  And how can they help if articles like those of Blengsli criticise them for trying to help US rather than for trying to help THEM (foreign archaeologists seeking more money for their research)?  How many Cham and even Hanoians know that there were villages of Cham people in Hanoi on the bank of Red River and deep inside the city centre where those Chams were kept as slave labour for the Vietnamese kings from the 13th century or even earlier, and where physical evidence of such existence is prominent and where there are probably still some descendents of the Cham kings? How many Cham and Vietnamese are aware of the imprints of Cham civilisation much further north of Thua Thien Hue province and Da Nang, where the My Son sanctuary of the Champa kingdom is located in the central Vietnam, ie in Nghe An and Ha Tinh, and still talk about it? How many Cham know that one of their kings, Devanika, may have founded Wat Phu, the famous "Khmer" site in Laos, in the 5th century?  Do the Chams "choose" not to know about this or do the people of the majority ethnic group and archaeologists and anthropologists like Blengsli choose it and decide it for them and whether they are worthy of the rights and resources to see and learn about this, themselves?

In order for the Chams to "pick and choose" what they deliberately want to remember, they ultimately need to have full information that is available and not selected by Muslim donor schools or Khmer national schools or Vietnamese national schools, but by their own schools as guaranteed in UN Treaties like the Rights of the Child, the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and many others that Blengsli et al deliberately ignore in their letter. Presenting full information is not only nor simply an act of excavation and preservation of sites that are of significance in terms of art and architecture and worthy for tourism purposes by foreigners or even by a few elite "Cham archaeologists" (who will likely never be motivated if they aren't given the full access to their own history when they are young).  What inspired me in Professor Lempert's article is his humanistic goal of bringing alive ALL of the historical sites and the discussions about their historical significance for the identity of a people (not just the "Cham Muslim" or "Khmer Buddhist" or "Lao Peoples' Revolution" sites that Blengsli et al think represent "their choice".)  It is important to make available the whole culture to EACH GROUP in an interactive and responsive way that makes sense to them and other peoples and that promotes the full aspects of their joint history in any period of time of any length for mutual respect and human development.

What I hear here from Professor Lempert's commentary is not a cry for "nationalist ends" for the stateless Chams, given that Professor Lempert has also published work that is very supportive of Khmer nationalism, and has spoken out for the Khmer in the area of Khmer Krom (Southern Vietnam) about how they also should have the right and resources to connect to their history and to the Khmer in Cambodia.  I read his article as an urge for real efforts in revitalising the lost history and the broken connection between the present Chams and their past for making a full sense of a culture in connection with others in the region, and for a recognition of the potential for a shared exploration and promotion of identity of all minority peoples in the region.

It would be a terrible shame if The Phnom Penh Post would end the discussion on these issues with Blengsli and his colleagues' efforts to shut down debate, and not continue with more articles on how to promote the identities, connections, knowledge and protections of all of the cultures in the region, across borders, through museums, exchanges, interactive tours, and new, rich, multicultural, historical curricula.

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